Major changes have been made to the planning system by successive governments. Yet whether we’re discussing nuclear energy, fracking, airports or indeed, housing, planning reforms dominate the political debate. All too often however, democratic decisions taken nationally are overturned due to other interests.
Democracy should be about balancing those interests – not pandering to whoever can shout loudest.
The fundamentals of the planning system have remained the same since the first Town and Country Planning Act in 1947. This is not something to be ashamed of: it is a system that, perhaps uniquely, places democracy and consent at the heart of the system.
Planning remains a consensus that the system must balance the interests of developers and communities. It engages the electorate and gives them a major say over what gets built and where.
Yet all around us, projects of national significance are stalled amid debate, political wranglings and legal tussles as vested interests are fought over and key decisions delayed. Heathrow is the best example.
While the 2012 Olympics was delivered efficiently and on budget, it remains the exception, rather than the rule. Key decisions about airport expansion – agreed over a decade ago – have been continuously delayed to avoid political fallout, HS2 was bogged down in litigation before the bill’s second reading had even occurred and housebuilders remain frustrated by the delays in receiving consent for homes that politicians blame them for not delivering. This has to end somewhere.
In a democracy, it is right that big decisions like Heathrow are scrutinised. But the public should not be misled into thinking that planning decisions represent a referendum – they don’t. We have an elected government that has taken a decision. What we should be doing is ensuring they keep their promises around the environment rather than finding more ways to tangle it up in knots. And while many would love the sight of Boris being chained to the runway, this would only heap further embarrassment on Britain’s current international standing.